May 2014

Worshipping in spirit and in truth


David Cameron, the Prime Minister, found himself subject to criticism of late for describing the United Kingdom as a Christian country. The criticism was based on the fact that the statement was divisive. It is interesting that subsequently some of the most vocal support for the Prime Minister has come from leaders of other religions. It must surely be that, if a statement is true, then the fact that some might regard it as divisive should not be a reason for keeping it quiet, for the truth will out. My issue with the statement is that it is manifestly untrue, and we do ourselves no favours by pretending that it is.
Let us get one side issue out of the way. There are all sorts of ways in which this country is culturally, historically and institutionally Christian. A branch of the Christian church is, after all, the established faith of this country, and, with that establishment all sorts of privileges flow, not least the presence of bishops as legislators in the House of Lords. I feel, however, that in many ways, the fact that the Church of England is the established church actually works against the growth and practice of Christianity in the country. For a start, it requires no real commitment for anyone to say that he or she is a Christian: it is seen almost as a birthright. I was recently asked on Radio Hereford and Worcester whether one had to be baptised to be buried in the church graveyard. I told the caller that anyone has the absolute right to have a funeral in his or her parish church and to be buried in the churchyard if there is room, but I was slightly puzzled why anyone who did not have any Christian faith wanted to have a Christian funeral and Christian burial: there seemed no adequate response other than that it was his right.
Sometimes people introduce themselves to me by saying apologetically that they are not actually churchgoers. I tell them not to worry as they are clearly in the majority. If, however, I am in a difficult mood I might say that I obviously recognise that most people are not Christians. That can provoke the reaction that they are Christians: they are, after all, baptised. I would then gently point out that baptism is not a right, it is a responsibility, and, since Christianity has distinguished itself from the outset by being a faith whose members met together regularly in worship, what marks out a Christian is not the fact that he or she has – usually without any say in the matter – been through a rite of initiation, but rather the way in which he or she plays an active part in the Christian life of the community. It is, I fear, complete nonsense to say that you can be a perfectly good Christian without going to church. (It is, of course, equally complete nonsense to say that anyone who goes to church is, by definition, a good Christian: it is a necessary but not sufficient condition.)
The Diocese of Hereford happens to have one of the highest rates of attendance at church of any diocese in the country, and attendance here is certainly good. On Easter Day, over 50 brave (possibly bonkers?) souls defied the cold and the mist to celebrate the Eucharist on top of the Black Hill at dawn, and, with our other services on the day, there were over 200 people at Anglican churches and I have no doubt that there was equally heart-warming attendance at the services of our Methodist and Baptist brothers and sisters. Others will, of course, have attended elsewhere, including our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters who no longer have any place of worship here. In other words, on the most important day in the whole Christian year, probably no more than a third of the population here gathered together to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
Now, on one level, I am not overwhelmingly bothered about numbers: what is crucially important is that the church serves its community. Nor am I trying to make anyone feel guilty: there can be nothing worse than people going to church simply because they feel that they ought. I am much more bothered about honesty. It is no good thinking you are a Christian: you need to be one, and that, at the very least has, from the very beginnings of the Christian faith, involved worshipping with your brothers and sisters. It means having a faith that is active and alive. It means getting to know and understand more and more God’s love and forgiveness shown in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It means recognising Christ’s compassion and trying to show that in our own lives. Maintaining that you are a Christian, while that in no way affects the way you lead your life, is a sad delusion.
This month continues the season of Easter, the most joyful season of the Christian year. It is not a bad opportunity for all of us to renew our faith and to try to live it actively. This will never be a Christian country just because there is a large number of people who are nominally Christians: it will only be a Christian country if the majority of its people are actively Christians. That is a huge challenge for the churches: it is possibly an even larger one to those who feel they need do nothing to be a Christian